Friday, December 17, 2010

AGU, Part 2: Geophysics is Loud and Icy

By Alaina G. Levine

The AGU Meeting in San Francisco this week was attended by an estimated 16,000 people. The crowds were massive and the lines for Starbucks were long. But perhaps nowhere was the excitement over all things geophysics-remotely-related more apparent during the evening business meetings focusing on each section of the Society.

After overdosing on posters for a few days, I sauntered over to the AGU business meetings and receptions on Tuesday evening, which are kind of like hospitality suites you find at many conferences, but with more hiking boots.

Each AGU section hosts a meeting/party, many with food and open bar. But even with inebriation, the climate still revolved around cutting edge science. In the meeting of the Cryosphere section, the discussion rang around Antarctica. In particular, the speaker, Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, who was accepting the 2010 Martha T. Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica, noted how complex it is to conduct scientific research on the Continent. It is inherently an interdisciplinary endeavor, she pointed out – you need oceanographers, geologists, meteorologists, seismologists, glaciologists, and although it was not specifically mentioned, you clearly need some physicists, if for anything, to lighten the mood on those long and dark nights.

But I didn’t think at that moment just how interdisciplinary the research can get. After the speeches, when the scientists swarmed the food line and I dove in, stole some eggplant sliders, and nearly lost my sense of humor (nothing gneiss about that! Sorry…), I had the good fortune of sitting next to Aqsa Patel from the University of Kansas, who clearly embodies this whole “everybody studies the cyrosphere” attitude. Turns out Patel is an electrical engineer, conducting research on new types of radar that is being used to analyze the ice sheets.
[Image courtesy of the University of Kansas: University of Kansas engineers with the Center for Remote Sensing of ice sheets prepare a radar system to look through several kilometers of ice to image the bedrock of Greenland]

The key is to use the radar, which is ground-based, airplane-based and even space-based (but somehow not affected by Earth’s mighty ring), to better understand how much ice is left, how fast it’s moving and how fast it’s melting. The goal, Patel said, is to validate the radar data with ice core and other data – essentially to double and triple check every sensor, and then use it to construct more accurate models of the cryosphere.

After that conversation, I somehow had a hankering for ice cream served on a mother board. But in the reception for the AGU Mineral and Rock Physics and Studies of Earth’s Deep Interior Section, all I found was Swiss cheese and artichoke dip. But fortunately, I bumped into another up-and-coming student in a different talk which filled my hankering for some great geophysics insights.

Kyle Warren, a grad student in geophysics at North Carolina State University, presented a paper this week on ocean acoustics. His poster, generated with colleagues and data from the Oregon State University and the Korea Polar Research Institute, was entitled “Underwater Acoustic Energy Generated by Drifting Ice in the Scotia Sea.” It delved into the contribution of natural noise to the undersea cacophony of man-made vessels, lost explorers and pirates, foreclosed mermaid colonies, and all those cute little worms at the bottom of the ocean. Apparently this was the first large-scale study into just how big the contribution of iceberg noise, in particular, makes to the overall noise level of the seas. And by the way, it’s pretty loud down there. The work will help scientists in many fronts, from marine science to glaciology to straight-up climate change. It could influence how marine animal scientists seek to develop techniques and protocols to better understand fauna behavior and how they are affected by the loud noise. And it will also undoubtedly even benefit the Bose Corporation, as they begin to develop noise-canceling headphones for dolphins, crabs and all the other fish in the sea.

[Top Image courtesy of NASA]

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